Sunday, June 19, 2005

Almost, but not quite, another 'Film Forensics'

Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. But it is a perfect illustration of the nightmare postmodernist universe where there is no absolute truth or absolute morality.

I came late to this particular bit of popular culture, since I never saw it when it was on TV, and have been watching the episodes straight through from the beginning on DVD with minimal preconceptions since the beginning of the year. We are now halfway through season six. One consequence of this is that whenever I see the name ‘Joss Whedon’ in the end credits, I immediately think of ‘Palmer Joss’ from Carl Sagan’s ‘Contact’. Again, because of the order in which I was exposed, I don’t immediately think of the Palmer Joss in the movie version, played by Matthew McMuahaha, but of Palmer Joss in the novel. While the movie version is vaguely religious in a New Agey way, the original Palmer Joss is overtly Christian, though in a relatively vague and undogmatic way. He is the rational religious character, as opposed to the irrational religious character whose name I forget, and while he is not particularly believable (he started out as a tattooed man in a circus and turned to the ministry after a near-death religious experience, for instance), he is a serious attempt by a non-religious author to create a sympathetic religious character, and he makes serious contributions to philosophical debates within the novel.

So, when I reach the end of an episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, I often find myself thinking, ‘what would this have been like, if it had been created by Palmer Joss, instead of Joss Whedon?’ This non-Film Forensics blog entry will discuss the interesting philosophical questions that are raised by aspects of the Buffy universe and then ignored (at least as far as the middle of season six), but probably wouldn’t be ignored if Palmer Joss were in charge. I should state that don’t know anything about Joss Whedon’s Weltanschauung, and I don’t particularly care; I will treat the Buffy universe as a ‘thing in itself’, which can be discussed without reference the qualities of its creator.

* The Buffy universe is as mutable as the virtual worlds of Greg Egan’s novels- no, more so. Entire people can be created by magic, and retroactively inserted into reality. Sunnydale can be converted into a Broadway musical by one demon or a chaotic mish-mash by the dreams of an eleven year old boy. The memories and personalities of the characters- and even the whole world- are trivially manipulated by magic. The postmodern guff about reality being a social construct is made flesh. Characters in a Greg Egan novel would be disturbed by this; they always work hard to maintain their personalities in a mutable universe. Characters in Buffy never talk about it at all. They worry about their trivial personal problems, but not about this nightmarish quality in their universe. Do they not notice it? They have no science and no religion. Perhaps they thought their reality was a social construct, even when it was like our reality? They ought to be self-aware enough to talk about this. Is the Buffy universe the collective dream of everyone? Is it a solipsistic universe, the dream of one person? Is it something like the dream of Brahman, with some underlying unimaginable reality? Or is it not really as mutable as it seems, but governed by yet undiscovered laws? I would certainly talk about these things if I was a character in the Buffy universe, and so would at least some of the characters if Palmer Joss had created it. This postmodern mutability is so much a part of the Buffiverse that I will not consider discarding it in this hypothetical. Although Palmer Joss does not believe in such a universe, it would be within his powers to postulate such a universe for the purposes of entertainment.

* At the very beginning of the series, the traditional religious weapons against vampires are used- crosses, holy water. It even looks like there is a container of consecrated hosts in Buffy’s war chest in the first episode. The camera keeps drawing our attention to the silver cross that Sad Puppy Vampire gives Buffy. These religious symbols are gradually forgotten and fade away as the series progresses. Later on- when Adam’s vampire minions attack the church- it is implied that their effects are purely psychological. The only overtly Christian character ever presented, the old lady who kept the orphanage that later became Finn’s residential college, is presented as thoroughly unpleasant, and her world view is denigrated. If Palmer Joss had created the Buffiverse, this efficacy of Christian symbols would not have faded away, and it would have had some internal consistency, even if it was never explained to us. And the characters ought to wonder what it is in holy water that makes it work.

* The afterlife in the Buffiverse is utterly terrifying. There is no salvation, through works, faith, or ritual. Everyone is apparently at the mercy of a variety of strange powers, whatever they do, to an even greater extent than they are in the pre-death universe. This is the animistic universe of some of the nastier primitive cultures, like the Bataks of Sumatra. Nobody ever sits down and talks about what happens after death. In Palmer Joss’ Buffiverse, they would.

* What are Vampires? Early on, Buffy says they are demons inhabiting human forms, sharing the memories of the original human, but not being human. Do they have demonic memories of a previous existence? They don’t seem to. Do they return to their own dimensions when their human shell dies? They don’t seem to, and when Adam is talking to his vampire minions their fear of death is mentioned. If human memories are the only memories vampires have, and they cannot return to their demon dimension, how are they not human? What makes them intrinsically evil and deserving of death? Their slayage is never questioned, even after Buffy gets to know the neutered vampire Spike quite well. He doesn’t have a ‘soul’- whatever that is- and yet is something other than intrinsically evil. Only his external behaviour is controlled by emasculating technology; he should remain a beast. But he is- imperfectly, fitfully- redeemed. At least up until the middle of season six. The implications of this for vampire slaying in general ought to bother Buffy. But they don’t.

The characters in the Buffiverse are flawed because none of them ever ponder the big philosophical, religious, and moral problems thrown up by their universe. In this they are much like characters in our universe, I suppose. In the long run, like a very very old character in a Greg Egan novel of the far future, their personalities are too mutable, too dependent on the whims of a chaotic universe, to hold my interest. If they talked about the big questions of their universe, they would remain interesting regardless. And they would, if Palmer Joss had created them.


Marco said...

You are right of course. How can a series possibly have a committed following with such a solipsistic feel to it. It boggles the mind. I must admit I switched off the program at the very first obvious sign of its lack of intellectual depth.

This comment brought to you by Marco’s Blog

Dr. Clam said...

The solipsistic feel has been explained in the very next episode I watched- it really is all happening inside Buffy's head, and she is confined to an institution in the real world! The doctors in the real world expertly pointed out all the flaws we have noted in the Buffiverse in a splendidly self-referential way, but at the end of the episode she choses to flee back to her fantasy universe.

Jenny said...

I remember that episode. It was most disturbing, just because it made so much sense compared to the "fantasy". I remember thinking that were I in such a situation, I would spend more time designing experiments that would prove one way or another what the truth was...rather than choosing based on my comfort zone.

Dave said...

Most fans of the show hate that episode, simply because they feel it invalidates the "true" show. Whatever.

I like it because it's a slick piece of postmodern writing and an emotionally involving dramatic work.

Marco's disingenuous rhetoric fails to recognise the central appeal of the show, which (obviously) has nothing to do with intelectual depth and everything to do with Hot Young People Saving The World.

But in fact I contest his arrogant charge of lacking intellectuality (is that a word?) - the show established itself from the outset to be "about" doing the right thing - i.e. opposing Evil - in a world that is beyond one's control or comprehension. There's a good solid wallop of 'with great power comes great responsibility' as well.

There's nothing mysterious about the appeal of such themes, even less so now than when the series started. Anyone who says otherwise hasn't been even casually observing Western culture for the past couple of years.

(And Dr Clam gets the prize for identifying the means of dragging me off my commentless arse

Marco said...

I feel I must respond now :). I knew that I wouldn't like Buffyvision after watching most of one episode, that's just the way I am - and after Dr. Clam's rundown of the first six seasons, I will continue to avoid even seeing it by accident, even though he claims to like the show. This is not to say that people who like watching hot young people kicking butt are "all" superficial, but that is the feeling I get. The entertainment value in say "Nikita" to me is the complete plausibility of the situation.

Marco said...

I feel that people who have watched a lot of episodes have an advantage over me when commenting. It is quite obvious that I cannot understand the appeal of something that I personally don't like. And yes, I've been ignoring the direction of western popular culture for several years.
This comment brought to you by Marco’s Blog

Dave said...

I very deliberately didn't say 'popular' culture. I may have been making a different point to the one you thought I was.

winstoninabox said...

Hahaha. Oh Marco, you really must hoist your colors as a troll and be done with it.

Ladles of "How can a series possibly have a committed following with such a solipsistic feel to it. It boggles the mind." and, "This is not to say that people who like watching hot young people kicking butt are "all" superficial, but that is the feeling I get" scooped out with "I switched off the program at the very first obvious sign of its lack of intellectual depth" and "I knew that I wouldn't like Buffyvision after watching most of one episode," serves up a chum of the choicest grade.

Hahaha. No Dave, don't bite! He's reeling you in.

Dr. Clam said...

I must confess I have no idea what that last comment was about. Marco does not seem to resemble a traditional Scandinavian, Middle-Earth, D&D, WoW, or Dilbert troll in any way that I can think of, except perhaps for his outrageous Jamaican accent.
Was winston perhaps posting in a language that shares lots of the same words as English, but with different meanings, like Polish and Slovakian?
I remain, as ever, desperately seeking enlightenment...